Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tolkien: Reality, Fantasy, and Awakening Desire

“I didn’t want it to be a fantasy. I wanted it to be a history.” – The Fellowship of the Ring special extended edition, dir. Peter Jackson, New Line Home Entertainment, Inc., 2002, cast commentary, comment by actor Sean Astin

“Isn’t this just the place everybody wants to have grown up?” – The Fellowship of the Ring special extended edition, dir. Peter Jackson, New Line Home Entertainment, Inc., 2002, cast commentary, comment on the Shire by actor Orlando Bloom
J.R.R. Tolkien was not content just to write a story. It was not enough for him that people should like his world, like his story, like his characters. It was not enough that we should admire or appreciate his world. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien did not set out merely to entertain; he set out to entice. He set out to awaken desire, to arouse longing. A reader hasn’t really understood Tolkien until he has wanted to go to the Shire, to visit Rivendell and Lothlorien, to see the great dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf in its day.

How far Tolkien succeeded in arousing desire is seen not only in the enduring popularity of the story, but in the unprecedented extent to which people want to make that world their own. An entire new genre of games – the modern fantasy role-playing games beginning with Dungeons and Dragons – began with fans of Tolkien who were not content to let the story be someone else’s story, the world someone else’s world. Tolkien succeeded in making us want those places as part of our lives, those friends as our friends, that quest as our quest.

Many authors are said to treat the themes of good and evil, and many authors do treat the subject of evil seriously and extensively. But relatively few treat the subject of good in any depth at all. Tolkien has one of the more deep and sustained focuses on goodness – and its desirability – in modern literature. He adeptly sidestepped shallowness, triteness, and (possibly worse) a dry, inorganic approach to good that renders it impossible to desire profoundly.

Tolkien also did a great piece of workmanship by making the most desirable parts of this fantasy world to be entirely natural. Magic appears in the story – but it is not what gives the world its allure. The Shire has no magic; it has little more than grass, sunshine, and friendship to commend it. The dwarven city of Dwarrowdelf was not made by one dwarf with a magical ring, but by a host of dwarves employing a great natural wonder: the ingenious craftsmanship of those who pour their hearts and souls into their work. The elven kingdoms’ greatest boasts are the forests, poetry and music, and the memory of ancient beauties. What we most desire in Middle Earth is already part of our own world. Neither is it beyond our grasp – we could live in the hillsides and carved mountain-halls if we chose. The humbler, still satisfying joys of sustained friendship and enduring accomplishment are still available to us.

So Tolkien has made his answer as to the value of this world, and of goodness. If we get to the end of Lord of the Rings and think, “I want to go on the ship to the Undying Lands,” then he has won us over.

Originally blogged at CADRE comments January 1, 2005.


Phaestus said...


I enjoyed your insight on Tolkien's writings and agree with your conclusion: if you're not left with a longing for the Undying Lands, you've missed the heart of Tolkien.

I have a blog entitled The Lord of the Kingdom where I've delved into Tokien's works and drawn out some of the Christian allusions. Not to be self-promoting, but you might find some of the posts interesting (being a Númenorean).

jennifer said...

I need to read Tolkien. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't.

--I loved the story you shared about the "cross-eyed bear" - so funny!

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Phaestus

I think we met last time I was posting on Tolkien. I like your website. Thank for stopping by.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Janet said...

This is one of the best summing-ups of Tolkien I have ever read. You have really nailed the essence of it, and in remarkably few words.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you, Janet.

& Hope all is well over at the Walrus. Good to see you again.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Amillennialist said...

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Screenplay by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Based on "The Lord of The Rings" trilogy by J.R.R Tolkien.

[. . .]

But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

What are we holding on to, Sam?

There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

[. . .]